Thursday, October 01, 2009

They Tortured a Man They Knew to Be Innocent

I don't know how this works or if I'm allowed to claim credit, but ... in response to Andrew Sullivan's post on the case of Fouad al-Rabiah, I wrote this:

Can we now call torture what it is? It is not a tactic and it is not a post-conventional moral exception for ticking time-bombs. Torture is a punishment. When viewed as such, confessed as such, it loses the tedious layers of rationalization that have characterized both sides of the debate so far. Torture is not an anxious over-reaction to future threats that haven't materialized. It has nothing to do with the future; it comes from the past, from a wound we never constituted after 9/11. Not concern for the future, but still-born rage for a past that can never be undone.

Torture is revenge. It is the only expression we have found that goes beyond our fruitless wars, beyond cultural alienation and jingoism. For torture is an intimate punishment defined by the willful desecration of reason and subjectivity. This is why so many people cannot bring themselves to utter the word in press or public forums. Mere death cannot compete with torture for the succor of revenge we seek -- we needed to craft a living death. We needed to make an inhuman aesthetic (Abu Ghraib) to match the spectacle of impotence and vulnerability we suffered on 9/11.

Any utilitarian argument (e.g. better safe than sorry, ticking time-bomb, ends justify the means, etc.) misses the essential emotions at play. Indeed, we cling to new iterations of these arguments to hide the raw emotions beneath them.
When I working on Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play at Arena Stage in 2005, we had an elderly German woman come in to tell us what it was like to sit on Hitler's lap as a three year-old. He chose her out of a crowd for a photo-op kiss on the head. She remembers her parents beaming with pride and her grandfather, an old-school Socialist, angrily waving his cane in the air behind the admiring throng. This was a year after Abu Ghraib and some months before Cheney began the formal request for torture as a standard operating procedure. Then, as now, the Nazi comparison was shrill and distracting so I asked the elderly German woman, as politely as I could, if there was any use or merit to the comparison between the neocon nightmare and the Third Reich.

It's the sort of question you can't help feeling embarrassed for asking. Her answer?

"The fact that we're even having a debate about whether torture is okay ..."

And then she stopped speaking. We waited for the ellipses to rebound into some compact judgement or affirmation. But they didn't. The silence was its own argument. Because torture is designed to take us to the unspeakable, to a place where all argument and all rational or subjective coordinates have been bleached away, deracinated by a cruelty that knows no cause, no imperative except the will to inflict its inner death on anything that reminds it of its founding condition:

I used to laugh at that picture. Jesus perched on a mushroom cloud, blessing the death beneath him as one more route to his tender embrace. Or Jesus dealing a deck of cards, what have you. But the more I stare at it, the more it reminds me of the only other image to dominate the American consciousness since 9/11:

Falling from the clouds ... we'll cling to anything to root ourselves again. Torture is the best way to revenge Ground Zero. But like that original horror, it gives us zero ground to stand on.